UW running back Melvin Gordon had 140 yards rushing but touched the ball just four times in the second half.
Tigers 28, UW 24: Opportunity lost
By ZACH HEILPRIN
HOUSTON - They were saying all the right things after the game.
It’s just one game.
It’s not a conference loss.
That’s a really good team.
And all of it’s true. But when the University of Wisconsin (0-1, 0-0) looks back at their 28-24 loss to No. 13 LSU on Saturday night, the only thing on their mind will be the fact they let another major opportunity for a program defining win slip through their hands.
“It was a big game for us and we fell up short,” running back Melvin Gordon said. “Obviously, people will say, ‘Wisconsin can’t win the big game.’ I’m pretty sure we’ll be hearing that all year.”
A 24-7 lead at NRG Stadium evaporated in the final 27:36 of a game that was – except for an 80-yard touchdown pass from Anthony Jennings to Travin Dural in the first quarter – all Wisconsin prior to that.
“I thought we were in pretty good shape,” said Tanner McEvoy, who was making his first start at quarterback in Division I. “Then obviously, they made a few plays and it started to roll their way, and we couldn’t get it back on our side.”
No. 14 UW scored on their opening drive of the game, with the touchdown coming on a 45-yard fly sweep by Reggie Love, his first college carry and just the second time he had ever touched the ball in a game.
“It was a great feeling,” the sophomore said. “It’s great to contribute to the offense. It’s good to be in that spot.”
On the next drive, UW’s offense stalled and they called on true freshman kicker, Rafael Gaglianone, who drilled the 51-yard field goal to give the Badgers a 10-0 lead.
It was 10-7 after the Dural touchdown but the Badgers fought back. Linebacker Joe Schobert forced a fumble and safety Michael Caputo recovered at the Tigers’ 31-yard line. Five plays later, Gordon went in from 14 yards out to make it a 17-7 game with 7:36 left in the half.
Things continued that way to start the second half, with Gordon breaking loose for a 63-yard gain on his 13th carry of the game. Corey Clement would score five plays later to give UW that 24-7 lead.
“I was and I think we all were,” Gordon said of feeling good being up 24-7. “We were probably feeling a little too good. They got the best of us because it.”
To that point, Gordon had 139 yards on the ground. He’d touch the ball just three more times in the game and finish with 140 yards.
When asked whether his lack of use the rest of the game was due to injury, Gordon answered in the negative.
“I was good,” the junior said. “Little sore. Obviously you get hit, big hits in the game. That’s what type of game it is. But I’m A-Okay, man.”
His head coach was no help in answering why the Badgers’ Heisman Trophy candidate was a non-factor over much of the second half.
“He came out and hit the long run. He seemed to be OK,” UW coach Gary Andersen said.
And why did he touch the ball just three times after that long run?
“(I) don’t know that.”
With Gordon a virtual non-factor after the first drive of the second half, UW had 37 yards of offense the rest of the way.
McEvoy, who surprisingly won the quarterback job over junior Joel Stave, was 3 of 11 in the second half with two interceptions. He finished 8 of 24 for 50 yards.
“I don’t think I did very well,” said McEvoy, who started three games last year at safety for the Badgers. “I’m going to be my hardest critic, but it’s a team game. I made a few mental mistakes and that happens, but that can be the difference in winning and losing a game.”
Despite having a 19-game starter like Stave on the sideline, Andersen stuck with the struggling McEvoy.
“No,” Andersen answered when asked if he thought about putting Stave in. “We can’t protect the passer. It does not matter who your quarterback is. The guy is running for his life.”
While the offense was scuffling the defense was getting worn down. After scoring just once in their first nine drives of the game, LSU put together four straight drives where they got points.
The first came following a successful fake punt on fourth-and-4 at their 43-yard line – something Andersen was anticipating.
“We felt like we got ourselves in the right position,” Andersen said. “We called out our defense. We put our defense out on the field, and they executed the play. It was a fourth down play and LSU converted it. It was a nice job as far as momentum swing. They went down and got three points, so I’m not saying that changed the game.”
The Badgers forced Colby Delahoussaye to settle for a 30-yard field goal and limited LSU to three points on their next drive as well. But the next two drives were the back-breakers.
Facing third-and-21, Jennings found wide receiver John Diarse, who broke four tackles to get into the endzone and make it a 24-21 game. Following a McEvoy interception on the next drive, Kenny Hilliard went to work on the ground against UW’s nickel package. He carried three times on the drive for 53 yards and finished it with a 28-yard touchdown.
“There were gaps that were completely open, and they saw those and they made plays,” cornerback Darius Hillary said.
Wisconsin moved the ball to the their 48-yard line on their next drive, but two incompletions by McEvoy was followed with a deep ball that was picked off. It proved to be UW’s last real chance at recapturing a game that felt like theirs for much of the night.
“I wouldn’t say they won that game,” Schobert said. “I’d say we probably lost it.”
The Badgers inability to win the proverbial big game isn’t new. They came up painfully short in three Rose Bowls, lost punch-to-the-gut type of games in 2011 and 2012, and came up empty in each of their three big games a year ago, plus lost as a 24-point favorite at home to Penn State.
“It’s going to hurt a whole bunch,” right tackle Rob Havenstein said. “Hopefully guys hold on to this feeling, and you never want to feel this way again.
“This is going to be my senior year, my last go round, so this one’s going to hurt for a while. You’ve got to shove that in the back of your mind. Next week, preparation starts for week two. You just have to get out there and get better as a team collectively and individually.”
Some will talk of the positives of the game and taking them forward through the next 11 games. The Badgers will try and do that, but the loss on a national stage, to a perennial powerhouse, is an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often.
"I think the first half was positive, if that’s what you want to take out of it,” cornerback Sojourn Shelton said. “It’s adversity. We’ve got to finish.”
Wisconsin talked all offseason about grabbing the respect of the country. Forcing people to recognize the program and the talent within. All of those comments must now be put away for the next big game. Whenever that may be.
“We’ll get our chance,” Gordon said. “And we’ll do work when we play them.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin